A thing called ‘pre-visualisation’…

Lots of people ask me how I make my shots look the way they do. For me it’s all very simple, of course, but I thought I’d take some time to explain some of my mindset when I’m selecting a piece of the world to freeze; through shooting it and ultimately processing it to the final version you guys all see.

My ‘look’ is largely driven by a film aesthetic, one I learned from having seen my father’s old transparencies at a very early age and then all the years I spent experimenting with film and darkrooms myself. Knowing the look of a piece Ilford film exposed a certain way, developed a certain way and printed on a specific paper means I can replicate that look now, with digital cameras. I’d dearly love to have a darkroom in the house again but right now I don’t have the space and I don’ want to travel all the way across town to use one. I like the immediacy of digital cameras. I’ve lived with film for more than 30 years of my life and whilst I don’t deny it can do things very differently to digital, the big ‘buzz’ for me right now with photography is seeing the results sooner rather than later. Seeing as I have nice palette of digital tools – my cameras and the post-processing suite I have at my disposal – I feel more of an urge to use them and draw upon a memory bank of  ‘film looks and feels’ than I do to rush out and shoot film, dev and then print it. That’s my preference. It is not a statement of the merits of digital vs film. I’m not going there. For me there is no comparison. Both are different animals.

So I have a heart full of film and a head for digital and knowing what style or look I want starts with this.

When I’m out shooting I have a kind of pre-visualisation of the final shot. Looking at the world in front of me I can actually see it in the way I finally want it to be rendered in my final image. That’s not really something I can explain easily or teach other people how to do. It’s just the way I see and I’m thankful for it.

Having that vision and reaching that final result comes, for me, as much from the perfect harmony of three main things as much as it does from my film heritage:

  1. knowing my camera and regarding it as an extension of my hand and eye
  2. feeling ‘at one’ with the balance between and available recipes of ISO, aperture and shutter-speed
  3. knowledge of how to take the shot – using post-processing techniques- from its ‘in-camera’ state and render it any way I choose, to reach the goal I had in mind when I first had my ‘vision’. Whether that means on the computer, now, or in the darkroom before.

These three things are everything for me as a photographer. There are other factors too, like having a feel for the environment I am in and anticipating the behaviour of elements and people within it. But the three points above are crucial. Without total comfort with all the variables I can’t do my environment justice, in my eyes.

Sure, there are times when I shoot something and then later, at home on the computer, see a different creative opportunity than that which I saw on-location. It’s just that 90% or more of the time I’m seeing what I want, the way I want it, as I approach my subject and before I even push the button.

It is possible to learn this, I think, but it takes time; time to practice and be at one with your camera and your processing options. Time also to soak up the history of photography and the images other people have shot. More than that, it’s about having films, books, poetry, experiences… life, for want of a better way of explaining it, at your fingertips. Armed with all that research material  – visual ‘case law’ perhaps it could be called – together with total affinity with your equipment and the process [my three points above] and you have at your fingertips everything you need.

The one that came out the camera is on the left. The one that was in my head to start with is on the right: click the pic for the larger version

Lady in Yurakucho, before and after.

  • shot straight to mono
  • exported from RAW to TIFF
  • straightened using the crop tool in perspective mode
  • contrast correction
  • tonal contrast added
  • centre lightened, border darkened
  • slight brownish tint added simply by opening the mono image in Nik 3’s ‘cross balance’ filter, and choosing a warmer tone

Five minutes of post-pro and I was all done.

So how does it directly translate into how my pictures look? Let’s take the other night’s shooting with a student as an example [the pic above came from that session]

We’re out in Yurakucho. It’s raining a little so I decided to take us under the railway bridge by Bic Camera and the International Forum. It’s a place I know well and a place I have the pulse of at various times of the day. When it rains the underneath of the bridges becomes and even more popular place to walk, as it gives momentary respite from the rain if you’ve been caught short without an umbrella. And the zebra crossing from the Forum to the station is always busy, even more so at the times of day when people are leaving their office for lunch or going home.

Under the bridges the light can be tricky for colour, because there are sodium and flourescent lamps there. So I usually choose to shoot black and white because I don’t have to worry about the colour and because it helps with the grit and grime you get in such places. This is all after the daylight has gone, mind you. In the day the green hue of the bridge’s ironwork is too much to resist… and full-colour is my choice then, not monochrome.

This, again, is all part of my ‘pre-visualisation’: knowing the place at different times of the day gives me a feel for how best to use my camera there. Of course I leave myself open to inspiration and to behaving spontaneously but catching a moment is often about being certain about how you want to capture it, so that you simply concentrate on the moment. The way you are capturing it is happening almost automatically, according to experience and affinity with one’s tools and techniques.

Rain brings umbrellas and shiny textures. People rush and don’t dawdle. The light behaves differently. More sensations and feelings to throw into the mix.

There’s a gap between two bridge supports where I’ve shot a lot before. I like the way people look when they are near it. So we shot there for a while, me with my 50mm.

Always conscious never to stay looking in one direction too long, I turn around to look behind me a lot when I’m out shooting and this time I liked the way the texture of the wall and people’s shadows looked. The wall was ten feet away, so I switched to the 14mm prime lens. With that I could capture the height of the wall as compared to the people and I would be able to have a decent amount of foreground too, to make sure I was getting the whole figure… as I wanted the feet and their motion.

I spotted some grafitti; yep, we’ll have that too, I thought. And then I noticed the superb play of the shadows as where I was standing was near two overhead lamps which were creating double shadows. Now I was really glad I’d turned around.

Light. Motion. Shadow. Double-shadow. Contrast. Grain. Grit. Grafitti. Umbrella. Shoes. Speed. Wide-angle. Don’t need such a small aperture, great. Slow speed for the blur. 1/6th sec. Stay still. Kneel down. One eye on the right-angle finder; one eye open to watch for people coming. Click.


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Japanorama is run by British professional photographer, Alfie Goodrich, and provides practical photography teaching in Tokyo. Weekly workshops, group and one-to-one lessons bring together photographers of all ages and abilities.

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